Monday’s Pre-Sun Belt Championship Zoom (Head Coaches, Commissioner Gill)
BOONE, N.C. — Jalen Virgil was ahead of the pack, but he wasn’t alone.
Virgil didn’t start celebrating until the final few strides of his 97-yard kickoff return for a touchdown against Georgia Southern on Saturday. Directly behind him, sprinting side-by-side, teammates Jourdan Heilig, Hansky Paillant and Malik Williams all raised their arms triumphantly around the 20-yard line.
The latest highlight-reel return from Virgil, who was named the Sun Belt Conference’s Special Teams Player of the Week based on his performance in a 27-3 win, resulted from a team effort.
The touchdown tied Darrynton Evans’ school record of three career kickoff returns for scores, adding to a 100-yard return in the 2020 win at Georgia Southern and a 100-yard return at Miami earlier this season.
“Watching film all week, I kind of know where the holes are going to be, and by the way all my blockers are blocking for me, I know where it’s going to be,” Virgil said. “At the end of the day, it’s kind of chaotic, but I know where to go, and after I hit that hole, it’s just my athletic ability getting me to make the rest of the play.”
Ranking sixth place nationally (and No. 1 Sun Belt) with a return average of 32.1 yards this season, Virgil got two chances against the Eagles despite his game-changing success in 2020 and capitalized late in the third quarter, right after Georgia Southern had cut its deficit to 10-3.
Fielding the ball at the 3-yard line, Virgil avoided the first wave of would-be tacklers by going between Anderson Castle’s block to his left and a three-man wall of Thomas Hennigan, Eli Wilson and Paillant to his right at about the 20-yard line.
Virgil angled through open space created by a Williams block to the left and a combo effort from Heilig and Christan Horn to his right, then was able to make a right turn toward the end zone by cutting inside a block from Jackson Greene, all while Tyler Bird and Logan Doublin did their jobs close to the App State sideline.
A pair of Eagles converged near the App State 35, but Virgil ran through those tackle attempts, and he extended a stiff-arm toward a falling kicker just shy of midfield. One last Georgia Southern player had a chance to stop Virgil, diving from behind with both arms extended toward his legs, and Virgil stepped out of that effort without losing his balance.
The final 45 yards involved no suspense — just a massive celebration. The only potential drama involved high school teammate and fellow super senior Kaiden Smith, who rushed away from the bench area to congratulate Virgil in the end zone.
“I almost got a penalty running out there because I wasn’t even on the field, and I had no helmet on,” Smith said with a laugh. “The ref had to drag me off the field.”